Robert Gothan, CEO and founder of Accountagility – the leading solutions provider for the finance function 

Financial Planning Week fell at the beginning of June this year, giving firms across the country the opportunity to reflect on their financial planning tools and how to make their business processes more effective.

Most firms know that financial planning is a crucial part of commercial success, so it is not surprising that businesses are spending a great deal of time and money on this endeavour. However, despite this level of investment, the resources being expended on planning often reflect the challenges of the process, rather than the depth of the plan, and are therefore focused incorrectly.

With finance departments increasingly asked to act as a strategic partner to the wider business, given responsibilities that lie far outside their traditional scope, it has become  clear that planning correctly and efficiently is  a business priority. The problem, however, lies in the fact that many finance departments are still struggling to pull together data from multiple sources, a substantial task which requires the resolution of complex adjustments, conflicts and errors within these data streams.

Planning challenges

We recently surveyed 200 Chief Financial Officers and Finance Directors about their planning and processes. Our research revealed that many businesses would like to spend more time on planning, but complicated systems often prevent this from happening.

According to the  findings, over a quarter of finance departments (28%) complete their planning cycles just once a year, as a result of challenges with existing systems. In particular, 56% of CFOs and Finance Directors feel that the sheer number of spreadsheets being used in financial planning, alongside the huge volume of data that needs to be managed, is an obstacle to planning more frequently.

Complexities in the huge volume of data, combined with the labour intensity required to collect, analyse and report on this information, can often be a drain on key resources in the finance department. However, it is a goal worth pursuing. By tapping into more insightful and efficient data, and removing the obstacles to more frequent planning, finance teams will be able to unlock powerful business intelligence and become even more of an indispensable asset to the business as a whole.

The stresses of spreadsheets

The results of our research also showed that the technology in many finance departments is still stuck in the past. This means that current solutions, most of which are heavily reliant on spreadsheets, often fall short and stop the finance function from fulfilling its true potential.

When automating key processes, finance departments are often asked to choose between flexibility and control, but the truth is that finance departments require both. Solutions of this nature will not only safeguard against costly, embarrassing mistakes, but will also enable finance functions to plan more frequently and effectively, bringing true value to the business.

The continued reliance on spreadsheets effectively highlights the inadequacy of many alternative solutions. Nearly nine out of ten (86%) of the financial professionals we surveyed would consider a different tool if they were able to maintain control – a figure which suggest that that finance departments need a system that combines the flexibility of spreadsheets with the control available in alternative options.

Strategising for success

Efficient planning enables finance departments to spend less time working on business processes, and more time working on the business. This approach will not only enable finance teams to facilitate better business decisions, but also to pursue more effective investments, ultimately helping the business to maintain its competitive edge.

By utilising a flexible solution that users can tailor to meet their various needs, businesses can be easily weaned off their over-reliance on spreadsheets. These new solutions are capable of providing the control needed for consistent and accurate data, enabling businesses to reduce or even eliminate errors and manual adjustments that occupy so much of a finance department’s time.

Firms that are able to leverage agile, flexible business intelligence will soon find that users can concentrate on analysis and planning, rather than wrestling with data. The benefits of this approach will be seen in the insight which finance figures and plans provide, and also in the frequency and ease with which departments are now able to complete their planning cycles. With this approach, finance departments will at last be able to fulfil the role expected and required of them by today’s businesses.